If John McCain was publicly renowned as the “maverick” of the United States Senate, Rand Paul is the incorrigible instigator.
The junior senator from Kentucky and 2016 GOP presidential candidate has a unique talent for upsetting his senatorial colleagues over issues big and small. Paul is a renegade in his own party, where hawkish interventionism is still the sine qua non.
So when Paul wrote in these pages that he could not in good conscience vote for Mike Pompeo as President Trump’s next secretary of state—“I could not support appointing him as CIA director in 2017, and for those same reasons, I will oppose his nomination to be our chief diplomat now”—the GOP’s hawkish faction was apoplectic. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas practically tagged opposition to Pompeo as an act of treason. Senator Bob Corker, the level-headed chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee responsible for shepherding Pompeo’s nomination to the Senate floor, let out a sigh as though Paul was beyond reasoning with. “He’s a friend of mine, but I’ll let the president deal with that,” Corker intoned to reporters.
It isn’t hard to imagine why the Republican mainstream is tired of Paul, particularly over Pompeo. Although Paul eventually decided to vote for Pompeo as the nation’s chief diplomat, he made the process more complicated and offered his support only after he received assurances that Pompeo agreed with President Trump that the invasion of Iraq war a mistake and that American troops should withdraw from Afghanistan soon. If it were left to the GOP conventional wisdom, Paul would have sat in his chair like a good boy and raised his hand for Trump’s pick.
Complaints from GOP leadership, however, go well beyond Pompeo—they are about keeping the Senate Republican caucus together, which in D.C.-speak means ensuring the rank-and-file blindly follows whatever the party elite tell them to do.
There is no question that Rand Paul can be a pain in the neck as far as Senate institutionalists are concerned. The number of times he has thrown sand in the procedural gears in order to make a point probably makes Mitch McConnell squirm in discomfort. Ever since he became a U.S. senator in 2012, Paul has been engaged in parliamentary mischief. He’s launched filibusters and talk-a-thons, placed holds on nominations to force more information out of the executive branch, objected to unanimous consent requests, used obscure provisions in the Arms Control Act to question U.S. military assistance to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and leveraged his position on the Foreign Relations Committee to coerce his colleagues into doing their most solemn duty: voting on issues of war and peace.
Back in 2014, in perhaps the most notable instance thus far, Paul attached an amendment to an unrelated water bill that would have repealed the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force, resolutions that have been stretched like elastic bands to legalize all the military actions the United States has taken in war on terrorism over the last 16 years. The gambit had the potential to ruin the water bill, but that was precisely Paul’s point: he wanted to scare the committee into drafting a fresh AUMF. Weeks later, the committee did just that, debating and passing an explicit authorization against the Islamic State (the resolution didn’t reach the floor before the end of the term was up).
Another example came last December when Paul threatened to derail the amendment process on the annual defense policy bill unless he was allowed a debate and a vote on his war powers amendment. Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain was livid, viewing it as the legislative equivalent of a temper tantrum. But again Paul eventually got what he wanted: the first Senate floor vote on an AUMF measure since October 2002, when Congress authorized the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Can these acts be construed as radical? In a way, yes: because nothing can get done in the Senate without collegiality, members of the chamber are expected to play the game and waive some of the more tedious rules of the chamber in order to speed the legislative process along. The last thing a majority leader wants is a moribund, do-nothing Senate.
Yet there’s plenty that’s noble about Rand Paul’s parliamentary tactics, particularly when they put cautious career politicians into a corner on important issues that senators should have voted for years ago. And while Paul may have given in on Pompeo (though not without concessions), his long record of pressuring his colleagues to do what’s right is unmatched in the upper chamber.
Rand Paul has devoted his career to shaking the Senate out of its coma and introducing more independent thinking into a Capitol sorely in need of a little unconventionality. Fortunately, it’s likely he has the American people on his side, most of whom are not underwriting their elected officials to be sycophants to congressional leadership.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.